A service that facilitates communications between hearing-impaired and hearing people is in for a major overhaul.

The FCC is trying to update the Video Relay Service (VRS), which enables people who can’t hear to have near-normal telephone conversations with those who can. Did we say “update”? Actually, “complete overhaul” may be more what the Commission has in mind.

Modern technology has done wonders for people with hearing problems. First came Teletype-like devices, called TTY, that sent typed messages over telephone lines. Problem: users on both ends needed TTY units, even if one of them could hear. Then came Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) in which a Communications Assistant (CA) with a TTY acts as an intermediary between the hearing and the hearing-impaired, speaking aloud what a deaf person types, and typing what a hearing person speaks. TRS thus enables hearing people having no special equipment and deaf people to communicate readily. A variation on TRS, provided over the Internet, is called (inevitably) iTRS.

But that’s all very 20th century. Today, the broadband Internet allows live video contact. A CA can provide visual sign language interpretation between a deaf and a hearing person. That is VRS. The overall improvement in the quality of life for deaf people has been dramatic.

Part of the eyebrow-raising fees that we all pay on our telephone bills funds both TRS and VRS. The service is otherwise free to users. Today VRS providers are compensated from the fund on a per-minute basis, and that causes a problem. Since users don’t pay, and vendors are paid per minute, no one has incentives to be efficient or to avoid wasteful use. Indeed, there is a contrary incentive for service providers to stimulate minutes of use, and thus enhance their own income. Service providers’ employees, for example, can pump up usage with subsidized calls, including sales calls to existing and prospective customers. (Some say this crosses over into fraud.) Service providers also want to hinder their users’ switching to a competitor.   One technique is to offer free equipment with unique features that don’t work with other providers. Even though the FCC mandates number and equipment portability, there is no requirement that additional features work universally.

With all the free video calling software and services available today to anyone who wants it, the FCC got to thinking.

Do we need a subsidized VRS service at all? Rapidly improving technology might solve the entire cost problem. But VRS needs broadband, and the neediest segments of the population (handicapped, elderly, poor) don’t have widespread access to broadband, let alone good computers and webcams. A disproportionate number of deaf American adults are unemployed, receive Social Security, or have low incomes, and so are less likely than the average to have broadband service. The FCC is working separately to stimulate broadband adoption. Even if it takes subsidies to reach the neediest consumers, that might be cheaper than paying for today’s VRS services.

If the FCC decides to keep VRS running as a separate service, it will want to provide incentives for greater efficiency and lower cost. That goal, though simple to state, leads the FCC in divergent directions. For one thing, the lack of uniform technical standards may raise the cost of equipment, and certainly makes it more difficult for consumers to switch VRS providers, thus impeding the benefits of competition. It might be more efficient to compensate VRS providers at a flat rate based on the number of users they serve, instead of per minute, assuming the FCC can prevent users from registering with more than one provider.

Paradoxically, though, the most efficient approach might be to have only one VRS provider, because concentrating all the volume would likely result in the lowest cost per unit of traffic. This does not sit well with advocates of competition, however, and like most monopolies, would require extra regulation to control costs and to avoid abuses. On the other hand, today one provider has 80% market share, so moving to a monopoly provider might not end up all that different in practice.

The FCC asks for comment on a wide range of issues: not only payment structure, but also how much equipment interoperability and portability are necessary, whether the government should run its own outreach program to consumers, whether there should be minimum qualifications for CAs, how to prevent unauthorized changes to a subscriber’s choice of service provider, how to handle E911 calls, and how quickly to implement any changes that are adopted.

In its current drive to be “data driven,” the FCC has spared no detail. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking  runs 109 pages, with 312 question marks and the phrase “we seek comment” appearing 167 times. By using a bulldozer rather than a pastry tray to dish out its proposals, the FCC might inadvertently be handing an advantage to the largest commercial firms, who might be the only ones with the resources to address all of the FCC’s issues. The short comment deadlines – 30 days for comments and only 15 more days for reply comments – may further handicap smaller participants, including VRS users that the FCC is especially anxious to reach.

The comment deadlines will begin to run on publication on the Federal Register. We will let you know when that happens.